PhD Candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering
Raudel Avila is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering. His research concerns the development of engineering models to design bioelectric systems that mirror the soft mechanics often found in biology. Recently, Raudel was a leading author for a research paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I am developing engineering models to design/optimize bioelectronic systems used to monitor, stimulate, and/or realize a therapeutic function in the body. These bioelectronic systems are engineered to stretch, bend, twist, and wrap around certain areas of the body without breaking—something extremely difficult to accomplish with conventional rigid electronics—and in some cases, even dissolve once they are no longer needed.
Recently, I worked on developing an engineering model for wireless injectable microsystems that sit on a mouse’s head and provide light stimulation and drug delivery directly to the brain. My model identifies the key microsystem parameters that control the drug delivery to the brain and can be solved directly with a calculator instead of having to use extensive or sophisticated computer calculations, consequently reducing the time spent designing and optimizing these devices.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
It is very rewarding when one of my ideas/modeling works materializes into a functional device used in animal experiments or clinical trials. Having said that, it is challenging when experiments and simulations do not agree, which prompts a spiral of questions, from the modeling perspective, to identify the reasoning behind the modeling approach: What am I missing? Is this even reasonable? Luckily, the collaborative nature of my projects allows me to answer these questions by talking not only to other engineers and modeling experts but also to people directly involved with experiments and clinical trials that have first-hand knowledge of the experimental challenges once the device is in operation.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
Soft and stretchable bioelectronics has the potential to transform the way we think about health monitoring from a one-size-fits-all system—often restricted to large/tethered machines or devices in clinics and hospitals—to individualized and portable monitoring platforms. To that end, engineering design and modeling play an important role to ensure the devices are safe, reliable, and electrically and mechanically compatible with the patient’s soft biology. From wireless, implantable, bioresorbable systems that monitor regional body temperature or facilitate neuromuscular regeneration, to thin skin-interfaced biosensors that monitor babies’ vital signs in NICUs, every system is carefully engineered to circumvent the conventional planar, rigid, and bulky electronics approach.
It is important to note that this is not the work of a single individual, and my contribution to the engineering design and analysis of bioelectronics is just one part of a big and collaborative team trying to positively impact other people’s lives through science and technology.
Whom do you admire in your field and otherwise, and why?
In stretchable electronics, two individuals come to mind: my adviser, Professor Yonggang Huang in the mechanics/simulation field; and Professor John A. Rogers in the materials/experimental field. Their research guidance, coupled with their insightful discussions about new ideas and potential applications of our work, is very inspiring. Also, I admire the work of Professor Stéphanie Lacour in soft bioelectronics, Professor Michael Dickey in liquid metals, Professor Canan Dagdeviren in conformable electromechanical systems, Professor Xuanhue Zhao in soft materials and hydrogels, and Professor Zhaoqian Xie in soft interfaces for virtual/augmented reality. Their projects and ideas are inspiring and revolutionary to the field.
In 2016, I was very fortunate to land a summer research experience (REU) for undergraduates at the Material Research Science and Engineering Center at Northwestern with my current adviser, where I first learned about epidermal electronics for health monitoring. In other words, very thin and soft electrical systems mirror the elastic properties of human skin and intimately operate in the skin to measure the electrical activity in the body. I knew back then that I wanted to be part of this team leading the development of the next generation of bioelectronic devices.
Coincidentally, Professor John A. Roger’s group (with whom my group collaborates extensively) moved from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to Northwestern the same year that I started my PhD in 2017, which deepened the synergy between my theory/simulations and their experiments because I was able to work very closely with my experimental counterparts to figure out the ins and outs of the projects together.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I used to walk to and from work every day, I listened to comedy podcasts during my commute, and I would just be laughing all the way back home. During the pandemic, I have enjoyed streaming all things politics, comedy, and fútbol related.
What books are on your bedside table?
I am reading The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A. Baker III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Blowout by Rachel Maddow, and over the winter finished A Promised Land by President Barack Obama.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I just had my first research paper as a leading author published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). This work provides a theoretical framework to design/optimize bioelectronic microsystems used in drug delivery studies, and I am very excited that others can use my work to design their own microsystems.
Published: May 11, 2021
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